Extract: The Girl in the Tree by Şebnem İşigüzel (translated by Mark David Wyers)

The Girl in the Tree is a powerful English-language debut about a girl’s coming of age amid violent unrest—and her unexpected escape.

A young woman climbs the tallest tree in Istanbul’s centuries-old Gülhane Park, determined to live out the rest of her days there. Perched in an abandoned stork’s nest in a sanctuary of branches and leaves, she tries to make sense of the rising tide of violence in the world below. Torn between the desire to forget all that has happened and the need to remember, her story, and the stories of those around her, begins to unfold.

Then, unexpectedly, comes a soul mate with a shared destiny. A lonely boy working at a nearby hotel looks up and falls in love. The two share stories of the fates of their families, of a changing city, and of their political awakenings in the Gezi Park protests. Together, they navigate their histories of love and loss, set against a backdrop of societal tension leading up to the tragic bombing that marked a turn in Turkey’s democracy—and sent a young girl fleeing into the trees.

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This is a story of freedom and love. The story of two young people ailing in heart and soul. I was one of them.

That night I climbed with effortless ease the tree where I was going to live. You might say it was a bit of a miracle. When I say “miracle,” I don’t mean that living in a tree is miraculous. I mean how swiftly I clambered up its trunk. It was as if a powerful wind whisked me right to the top, throwing off my pursuers. Indeed, I was being pursued, and I was trying to run away. But from whom? I was going to say that I was fleeing from life itself. But I fear that you would mock me for the little experience I have of life.

I was about to turn eighteen years old. That night when I found myself perched high in the branches of a tree, I had run all the way from Cihangir to Gülhane Park. My backpack, which contained only a few personal belongings, hadn’t slowed me down in the least. Who knows why I even bothered to bring it. In any case, I hadn’t planned on climbing a tree and staying there. It just happened. I was racked by despair, at a loss as to what I should do next. I’m tempted to say that I’d lost my mind, but if that had been the case, I would’ve at least found some solace in madness. And, as you will see, not once did I lose my grip on reality.

People are nothing more than the accumulated stories of others. In particular, the stories of their mothers and fathers. I’m not talking about genetics—this is purely a matter of the spirit. Try with all your might to resist, but in the end, you turn out to be no different from them, in your very essence and being. While my thoughts may be as scattered as my breathing is labored, what I want to tell you is nothing like that. It is a singular whole, complete. Well, in my mind that’s how it is.

Perhaps knowing that I am the girl in the tree will leave you feeling confused. Not a problem. In fact, all the better. You too should be a little confused because that is my constant state of being. Life itself is confused. Even Robert Pattinson, the vampire, said, “I’m definitely very confused.” So be it. I have a poster of him in my room. As I was leaving, we exchanged glances.

He didn’t look at me as if to say, “Wait! Where are you running off to?” To the contrary, he seemed to be saying, “Well, fuck off already!”

This is the story of a seventeen-year-old girl who wound up high in the branches of a tree one night. But there’s more to the story than that. You have to step back if you want to see a picture more clearly. You have to start with the good times. For instance, the night of July 23 in 2011. Actually, that wasn’t the best of nights, as that was when Amy Winehouse died. I had a picture of her troubled, tragic face as the wallpaper on my phone. The background on my laptop was a photo of Robert and Kristen, who became a vampire later on. But don’t try to draw any connections between how I ended up in that tree to vampire lit because there aren’t any. In fact, I’d lost all interest in both Robert and teenage vampire stories. An act of rebellion is what led me to where I am now. Those posters, which needless to say are so out of fashion now, are only there because I didn’t bother to take them down. Vampires don’t rebel, they suck blood.

But Amy is different, and she always will be. That’s because she rebelled and then she died.

I’m here for only one reason, and that is to die before death comes to get me. I may have said this already, but I’m going to say it again for the simple reason that I’m definitely very confused: It’s a miracle that I got all the way up to the top of this towering tree. The trees here have been here for centuries. They say that the park used to be part of the palace grounds. Do you know how smooth the trunks of plane trees are? It was as if my hands and feet stuck right to its beautiful, bare trunk. There’s no other way I could’ve climbed it. I know Gülhane Park well because for years my father worked at the Archaeology Museum, which is right behind it.

I’d taken off my red Toms sneakers at the bottom of the tree, and now they were sitting there like a tiny stain on the grass. There’s this tired old story that they always make us read in our literature classes at school: driven by its love for a rose, a nightingale impales its heart on a thorn of the rosebush and the blood runs down, becoming the deep red found at the base of such thorns. If Amy had heard that story, maybe she would’ve written a song about it because her love always went unrequited and she sang her laments like a nightingale. In the end, however, the pain broke her heart and she died. In a way, she rose up in revolt against life and all the callous ignoramuses around her. Admittedly, that was a pointless comparison. I mean, the one before, the one about the nightingale, the rose and the red Toms shoes. But you see, it’s not easy to write. Thinking is the hardest part of all. Put crudely, I guess what I was really trying to say was this: Lying under the tree, my red canvas shoes looked like two drops of blood that had started seeping into the ground. A stain.

After seeing my shoes so far down below me, I felt certain that no one would find me so long as they didn’t look up. And even if they saw the shoes, it would never occur to anyone that whoever had left them behind would now be nestled in the upper branches of the tree, hurled up there by the violence of life. The world below, the streets and sidewalks, struck me as being particularly dangerous once I found myself high up in the tree, and the thought of getting lost down there filled me with fear. If I’d stayed down below, I would’ve struggled to stay alive, and in the process I might have lost all sense of humanity.

I thought about how practically difficult it was going to be to live in the tree. I wondered how I’d come up with the idea. Books, perhaps? If I’d found a deserted island, would I have chosen to live out my life there? Or spend the rest of my days in the belly of a whale, like a prophet? No, I’d grown out of my copycat days long before. So why had I clambered up a tree like a cat fleeing for its life, a snarling dog nipping at its heels? Never mind that. The important thing is that I was able to climb it, all because my friends died. But I can’t tell you about what happened. Not yet. After all, I don’t know what kind of person you are. On that note, I once saw a tweet that I liked:
“Maybe you’re one of those people who have a prickly pine cone for a heart.”
I don’t want to cry now. When I think of my friends, I break down in tears.

Let me tell you about something else: No one can climb a tree in a blink of an eye. But ever since Amy Winehouse died four summers ago, I’ve been learning how to slackline, which may have helped me in my miraculous ascent. While you’ve most likely heard of Amy Winehouse, I’m not so sure you know much about slackline, so let me briefly describe it. Slackline involves tying a strap between two trees a little ways off the ground and then balancing on it, not unlike a tightrope walker. I first saw it on YouTube. My father, who is adept at making such contraptions because of the work he does as an archaeologist, helped me put together my first setup with some ratchets and a strap we picked up in Karaköy. I started practicing, rain and shine, and I signed up for a mountain-climbing class as well, which required that we do slackline as preparation. You might be thinking, “Well then why are you talking about miracles? You were better trained than anyone else to climb up it.” That’s a logical point. But still, climbing a tree, and a very tall one at that, poses its own unique challenges, and even if I had gone through some training, it couldn’t have prepared me for shimmying up a tree trunk like a sheer cliff without a rope, carabiners, or spikes. Also, I’d had to quit the mountain-climbing club because it turned out to be far beyond my “modest means,” as
they say. Those were the days my family plunged from being middle class to hitting rock bottom. You have to admit that to a certain extent, happiness is related to whether or not you have any money. We were a bit better off the summer that Amy Winehouse died; at the very least, we were able to pay our bills. If we’d known that we were heading for darker days and that our last free and easy summer was slipping away, we would’ve enjoyed it as best we could.

An Amy Winehouse concert was scheduled for early that summer in Istanbul, and I already had my ticket. Truth be told, my aunt, who was a journalist at the time—or to put it another way, she was still allowed to practice journalism in those days—had said to me, “I’ll find you a ticket.” Things were always like that. We sponged our way through the world of the arts and culture. Sometimes she’d send me along with a photographer. Handing me a flash card for his camera, he’d gesture toward me and say, “She’s my intern,” and even though I looked rather young, they’d let me into the events. Because they were good people. Because good people worked in the industry. Because even the name of the publishing company was good: Pozitive. Mehmet Ağabey worked there. He laughed and smiled as innocently as a child, and when he laughed, his eyes lit up. He ended up dying too. But it was cancer that got him.

“Living in this damn country is enough to give you cancer.”
That’s what my aunt said at his funeral.

Suffering is like a jammed lock that gives you no end of trouble. But when you do finally get it to click open and for the briefest of moments you feel a sense of relief, suddenly you fall to pieces, just like me.

Şebnem İşigüzel was born in 1973. Her first book, Hanene ay dogacak (The Future Looks Bright), won the prestigious Yunus Nadi Literature Award for published collections of short stories in 1993. She has gone on to write eight novels and two more short story collections. The Girl in the Tree, published in Turkey in 2016, is her first novel to be translated into English.

Mark David Wyers completed his BA in literature at the University of Tampa and his MA in Turkish studies at the University of Arizona. From 2008 to 2013 he was the director of the academic writing center at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, during which time he drew upon his master’s thesis to write a historical book-length study titled “Wicked” Istanbul: The Regulation of Prostitution in the Early Turkish Republic. He has since dedicated himself to working on translations of Turkish novels, published examples of which include Boundless Solitude by Selim İleri, The King of Taksim Square by Emrah Serbes, The Pasha of Cuisine by Saygın Ersin, and The Peace Machine by Özgür Mumcu. His translations of Turkish short stories have been published in a number of anthologies and journals.